From Pit to Ponds Story by Kristin Kessler

Beginning in 2004, the city of Eugene, Oregon took advantage of a common occurrence, an unkempt riverside gravel pit, and made the unique decision to reconstruct a riparian ecosystem. The restored natural habitat in Delta Ponds has become a resource for animals to build homes in or use en route to other destinations.

Until the late 1800s, the area served as a salmon waterway, part of the meandering braided river system of the Willamette River. In the 1950s -- as construction began on highway systems and urban development -- the landscape became a series of pits, ponds, and canals, as gravel mining the area provided construction resources. The land stayed in this condition for decades.

Urban planners: new vision

Discussions in city offices developed a new vision for land use around the ponds. In July 2005, Delta Ponds, A Vision for Enhancement and Management -- a document prepared by the Lane Council of Governments for the Eugene Parks and Open Space city offices -- formalized the vision proposal for the ponds from usability and ecological study of the area.

In the early stages, teams of city planners, contractors and volunteers did extensive remodeling to create a flowing system of ponds. Culverts had to be cut to connect the river to the existing pits and the walls of the pits were filled to create sloping, grassy banks. Lush banks are easier for animals to navigate and provide shallow areas for fish to rest and hide from predators in. Invasive plant species which had dominated the area were removed and replaced with various species that are native to the area, such as cottonwood trees, willow trees and an assortment of wildflowers. Having a multitude of plants with diverse structures and blooming periods enriches the ponds and provides necessary components of habitats for native animal species.

2004-2012 Delta Ponds in transition

Since the intensive steps of the recovery project, the ecosystem has become primarily self sufficient besides occasional invasive plant control implemented by the city. Heron, eagles, osprey and many species of stunning migratory birds hunt in the ponds and nest in trees in the surrounding area. Threatened aquatic species such as the Western Pond Turtle and Chinook Salmon make their homes in Delta Ponds or use it as refuge during a particular part of their life cycle. Beaver, another native species, build dams in the ponds that contribute to the natural dynamism of the system and helps the habitat sustain itself.

To Lauri Holts, Parks and Natural Resource Planning Ecologist, the fact that natural dynamics have established themselves in Delta Ponds means the city’s efforts to protect and enhance animal habitat that is usually sacrificed for human development has been a success. Holts, who began working on the project early in its development, also considers the accessibility of the natural area for Eugene residents to be an important factor of its success.

Photos by Keven Salazar and William Tierney

The ponds are surrounded by urban development such as apartment buildings, an expansive mall, car dealerships, a major highway, and other businesses. For residents of urban areas to be able to visit a thriving ecosystem without having to drive out of town is a rarity. Delta Ponds allows people to bear witness to natural systems and learn about the dynamics of rivers with minimal obstacles.

This benefits people as a break from mundane urbanity and benefits the environment as the more connected to it people feel, the more likely they are to protect it.

Carolyn Burke, Parks and Natural Resource Planning Manager for Eugene, said that she has never heard someone express disappointment in the city’s decision to develop Delta Ponds, mostly because people cherish there being nature in the middle of the city. Delta Ponds also serves as a natural mitigator for extreme weather events like flooding, which are predicted to become more common in the pacific northwest as climate change continues. Having side channels on rivers as Delta Ponds is on the Willamette slows and diffuses the immense volumes of water, which protects both local developments and those downstream.

This makes projects like the Delta Ponds a promising alternative to faulty methods of river control like levies.

The restoration of Delta Ponds was an immense and expensive undertaking for the city, but its benefits can be an example to other urban areas to show riparian restoration is worth the investment.

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